Paula Rego - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Marlborough Fine Art, London; Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    London, Hayward Gallery, Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, 3 March – 30 May, 1994

  • Catalogue Essay

    “With pastel you don’t have the brush between you and the surface. Your hand is making the picture. It’s almost like being a sculptor. You are actually making the person” Paula Rego

    “With pastel you don’t have the brush between you and the surface. Your hand is making the picture. It’s almost like being a sculptor. You are actually making the person. It’s very tactile. And lovely because it’s very difficult, learning what colours to use together to make shadows and so on; and there’s a lot of physical strength involved because it’s overworked, masses and masses of layers change all the time. It takes a lot of strength. But it’s wonderful to do, to rub your hand over. It’s so nice to use grey. You get these wonderful warm greys with pastel.”
    (The artist, quoted in John McEwen, Paula Rego, London, 1997, p. 215)

    Recognized as one of the leading figurative painters of her generation, the British-based, Portuguese-born Paula Rego has dedicated her artistic career spanning over a half century to the representation of the human predicament. At once subversive and liberating, Rego’s haunting paintings tell complex stories revealed through a richly layered visual narrative. Domination, oppression and violence, mainly involving female protagonists, are themes which permeate her work. Well-versed in the history of art and drawing upon a glut of visual and thematic references ranging from the Renaissance to her contemporaries from the London School via the French Modern Masters, Rego weaves together her experiences, memories and fantasies.

    The Servant was executed between 1993 and 1994 and is Paula Rego’s first large-scale pastel on canvas. It precedes and anticipates her most famous series, Dog Women of 1994–95, also created in pastel. The Servant is a pivotal work that ushered in Rego’s mature style – it was a ground-breaking painting combining her previous psychologically charged imagery with a physical painting style that pastel, on such a large scale, demands.

    Set at night in a dark room with light from a hallway peering through the slightly ajar door, The Servant is a costume drama depicting a butler engaging with a vomiting maid. Filled with ambiguity and unease, the butler’s intentions are debatable: is he helping the maid by giving her the Heimlich manoeuvre or is he taking advantage of her? Two elements in the background of the painting would suggest a sinister reading of the scene: the children’s rocking pony and the proud stag reflected in the mirror. Metaphorically, the rocking pony is a feminine reference of childhood innocence whereas the stag, positioned above/on top of the pony represents the virile male dominating his female counterpart. With her face in visible distress and arms opened in agony, the maid’s compromised position is enhanced by the butler’s tight grip on her abdomen as he forcefully pulls her in toward his midriff. What looks like a turned-over empty glass and a wooden beam in the foreground, can only lead the viewer to speculate further as to what is happening in this harrowing scene.

    Offering more questions than answers, Paula Rego’s voyeuristic, dramatic narrative brings to mind several sources from the history of art. Thematically and visually, The Servant is similar to Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 1778 masterpiece entitled The Bolt. Like The Servant, The Bolt is a deeply ambivalent image of a woman in a man’s clutches: a violent struggle or an embrace? In both paintings, the protagonists are set to the right hand side of the composition, near a bedroom door under spotlighting and with a background to the left-hand side filled with suggestive metaphors. Compositionally, Fragonard and Rego both employ sharp diagonals and strong verticals to bring together the different elements of their respective pivotal moments. Unlike the classical Fragonard however, Rego uses a modern painterly device to create spatial ambiguity and further the visual and metaphorical sense of claustrophobia and unease within her narrative. Like in a Cézanne still life or with the ambiguous mirror in Edouard Manet’s iconic Bar aux Folies Bergères, Rego’s depiction of space is problematic: the position of the door and the white wall in relation to each other with the hallway lighting can not be realistically reconciled. Furthermore, with her right shoulder seemingly disjointed like a Degas dancer, the contortion of the maid’s right arm is anatomically inaccurate.

    Degas, famed for his sexually charged depictions of young dancers, is in fact an artist with whom Paula Rego engages primarily through their common use of pastel to represent the human form. As her first large-scale painting executed in the medium, The Servant displays a physicality unseen in her prior work. Executed over several months and vigorously worked with her fingers, the figures retain a sculptural quality. The art historian John McEwen describes the intensity of her working method: “at the end of the day’s work she looked like a coalminer, teeth and eyes the only visible features in her black face smudged by hours of pensive fingering. This delight in matter, of getting back to finger painting, also had a childlike freedom as her happy and mischievous smile would indicate” (John McEwen, Paula Rego, London, 1997, p. 215).

    As a long time resident of Camden in London, Paula Rego would have been very much aware of the Camden Town Group painter Walter Sickert. His well-known painting entitled The Camden Town Murder, an unsettling depiction of a man with head bowed sitting at the bedside of a naked woman who appears to be dead, shares with Rego’s The Servant a disturbing sense of voyeurism. The American painter Dorothea Tanning’s surrealist inspired compositions referencing childhood fantasies and nightmares are another inspiration to Rego. In the collection at Tate Britain in London, Tanning’s 1943 masterpiece, A little night music, represents two life-size dolls standing in a long corridor with doors slightly ajar and oversized sunflower at the top of a staircase. The power of these works, like The Servant, lies in their uncertain narratives which unfailingly draw in the viewer with contradictory clues and details in our attempt to decipher these enigmatic works.


The Servant

Pastel and acrylic on canvas.
155 × 122 cm (59 7/8 × 48 in).

£500,000 - 700,000 

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

12 October 2011